LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- By all rights, neither man should be here.
Harold J. Rose, the trainer, is 88. He suffered a heart attack last summer and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. He returned to his barn within three weeks.
Roger Velez, the jockey, is 43. A rising star in New York in the late 1970s, he was beset by alcoholism and a stroke. Out of racing for four years, he returned as an exercise rider and then, reluctantly, as a jockey.
With a friendship rivaling family and an overachieving horse named, appropriately, Hal's Hope, the two survivors have climbed to the pinnacle of their sport. On Saturday, they will compete in the Kentucky Derby.
"The Good Lord blessed us both," Velez said. "And we're here."
They're at Churchill Downs on center stage for the country's greatest equine drama. Hal's Hope will be one of an expected 20 3-year-olds racing in front of 150,000 screaming patrons and millions more watching around the world on television.
Bred, owned and trained by Rose, the dark brown, nearly black, colt won the Florida Derby March 11 at Gulfstream Park with a gut-wrenching effort that nearly felled him. Hal's Hope staggered with exhaustion returning to the winner's circle.
He had not bounced back by the Blue Grass Stakes on April 15 at Keeneland. After fighting to keep up early with the eventual winner, High Yield -- whom he'd outfought in the Florida Derby -- Hal's Hope faded alarmingly to eighth. After finishing first or second in four straight races, it was by far his worst performance of the year.
Velez and Rose were puzzled. They discovered nothing physically wrong with Hal's Hope. Finally, they simply decided that he had had a bad day, didn't like Keeneland or both.
"The whole time at Keeneland, he didn't roll in his stall once," Velez said. "As soon as he got off the van here [Churchill Downs],he walked into his stall, rolled in the straw and threw a big squeal, as if to say, 'I'm here. I'm somewhere that I like.' "
Hal's Hope has trained strongly at Churchill Downs, filling his jockey and trainer with hope that he has regained the competitive edge. Should he win the Derby, Rose would become the oldest trainer, by 12 years, to win the race. Charlie Whittingham was 76 when Sunday Silence won in 1989.
"I want to win, not for me," Velez said. "I'd love to win for Papa Rose. Before the Florida Derby, I hugged and kissed him and said, "This is for you, Papa Rose.
"He's just a special human being. He doesn't have a bad word to say about anybody. He's humble, sweet, loving. He'll help anybody who comes to him. ... He picked me up when nobody else would give me a shot."
Velez has been sober eight years, he said. But it wasn't until he met his future wife, Patti, that he found the will to return to racing, timidly at first, but gradually with more confidence.
"If you'd have told me four years ago that I'd be here today, I'd have said you were crazy," Velez said. "This is a dream come true. This is a good lesson for everybody: Don't give up on your dream. Don't give up hope."
Racing exclusively in southern Florida, Rose was one of Velez's most enthusiastic backers. He didn't hesitate assigning Velez to Hal's Hope, a home-bred Rose liked from the beginning.
"He's not in the upper echelon of jockeys," Rose said of Velez. "But he's as good as anyone. And he knows the horse."
Yes, Velez knows Hal's Hope, but not nearly as well as Rose does. And Rose knows not only Hal's Hope, but also his ancestors.
Rose owned and raced the dam of Hal's Hope, the graded-stakes winner Mia's Hope. (Rose bred her to Jolie's Halo, a multiple Grade I-stakes winner then standing in Florida.) He also owned and raced Rexson's Hope, the sire of Mia's Hope.
Rexson's Hope provided Rose his greatest highlight until Hal's Hope came along. In 1984, Rexson's Hope took Rose to the Derby for the first time. As a long-shot member of the mutuel field, Rexson's Hope finished 10th.
Rose was 72 then and never expected to make it back. But he liked Hal's Hope so much that he named him after himself -- Hal is his nickname -- and his dream -- "hope" to return to the Derby.
Hal's Hope has already accomplished things Rexson's Hope did not. When Hal's Hope won the Florida Derby, he gave Rose his first Grade I victory in 32 years of training.
(Rose took up horses in Florida at age 56 as a second career after selling two businesses in New Jersey -- a printing and publishing company and a 40-acre resort for corporate retreats.)
Rose said he believes Hal's Hope has a far better chance in the Derby than Rexson's Hope had. He's so confident that he's rejected offers of what he said are millions of dollars for Hal's Hope.
"I knew I wouldn't have too many more chances in my lifetime to have another Derby horse," he said.
Then again, Rose is only 88.
"After the Florida Derby, they asked me how long I planned on training horses," Rose said. "I told them to ask me again when I was 100."
What: 126th Kentucky Derby, first leg of horse racing's Triple Crown
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
Post time: 5: 27 p.m.
TV: Chs. 2, 7 (coverage begins at 4: 30)
Distance: 1 1/4 miles
Purse: $1 million
Post draw: Today, 5 p.m., ESPN